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The Classic Doctor Who Viewing Project: Season 1, Part 1 (An Unearthly Child)

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First DoctorOK, I know I covered some of this in my introductory post, but here are two things this series is not.

  1. Unlike most discussions of Doctor Who, This series is not meant to be a detailed exegesis of a pop culture phenomenon I’ve known since childhood. I’ve been there and done that with the Monkees, and you can have your fill (and then some) in the archives or on that podcast I just got roped into. Said Podcast aside, I’m ready to talk about some new (to me) stuff for a while. If you want to read actual deep Doctor Who Analysis along those lines, see any of the fine resources I linked in my last post.
  2. This is not a complete discussion of Doctor Who, merely a discussion of the 3-5 story arcs in each season that seemed the most interesting and/or important to the series. I want to get a quick overview of Doctors 1-8 over the course of a year or so, and then I’ll loop back, if so inclined.

So with those explanations and apologies, I’m going to share my initial reaction to selected stories from Season 1 of Doctor Who from the perspective of a person who is, like Ian and Barbara, stepping into the classic-era TARDIS for the first time. Also, after observing how much I had to say about an Unearthly Child, I am probably not going to try to compress entire seasons into a single post, as was the original plan. Instead, expect a post every week (approximately), covering 1-2 stories each.

An Unearthly Child

Ppganuneartlychild_017At this point I think everyone not raised in a fundamentalist compound where such things were banned knows the gist of the opening episode of the First Doctor Who Story. Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, Science and History teachers respectively, are concerned about the odd behavior of student Susan Foreman, an odd girl who simultaneously knows more science than Ian while not understanding the English monetary system. As this story is set in 1963 Britain instead of 2014, Ian and Barbara don’t call in the school psychologist or child protective services. Instead they hop in a car and head for 76 Totter’s lane, a home address that turns out to be a junkyard. This bit of light stalking culminates in a confrontation with Susan’s Grandfather, near the police box that Susan just slipped into. They force their way into said box, and we all join in their utter shock at what they see. Ian and Barbara (and the viewers) cannot yet understand what they are seeing, but they (and we) are soon sucked into an ever lengthening labyrinth that still enchants and puzzles companions and viewers half a century later. The possibilities are literally infinite, and anyone who steps in to the TARDIS for the first time will have a surprisingly hard time leaving.

unearthly child interiorAll that said, the Doctor is an asshole in this episode, and the following three parts of the story. For those (like me) who only know the modern, more civilized (if still dangerous) incarnations of the Doctor, this frightened, petulant, bullying child who seems to be playing dress-up in an older man’s body comes as a minor shock. After the Doctor essentially kidnaps Ian and Barbara, the TARDIS promptly delivers the unlikely band of travelers to the stone age, where they must earn their freedom from a tribe of atrociously acted squabbling cavemen by teaching them how to make fire. This last three episodes of the story are pretty forgettable (in fact they stopped me cold in a previous attempt to watch the series from the beginning), except for what we learn about the Doctor. As mentioned above, none of it is flattering. At turns frightened, whiny, and murderous (He briefly considers killing one of the aforementioned cavemen in cold blood for no other reason than sheer convenience, a choice that would make most New Who fans’ jaws hit the floor), the Doctor is decidedly NOT the hero of this tale. Barbara and Susan are given little to do aside from hovering and screaming, though at least in Barbara’s case the terror is understandable. As for Susan, this isn’t her first rodeo, so the screaming’s a little harder to take. That said, I wish this story were a bit clearer about how long the Doctor and Susan have been traveling. Frankly it’s obvious that while they probably made a few pit stops before settling down on Totter’s Lane, they’re both fairly new at this. Ian saves the day though, through a combination of wits, ethical good sense and good old fashioned daring do. It almost feels as though Ian is starting to teach the doctor how to be The Doctor in this story, a theme that continues with both Ian and Barbara through later episodes in the first season.

In due course, our heroes make good their escape, leave fire behind, and flee in the TARDIS. And I’ll be honest—if they had next landed in a circumstance similar to prehistoric earth of the Tribe of Gum, Doctor Who would not have been a topic of conversation one year later, much less 50. However, The TARDIS*, in an amazing fit of genius, lands next on the Planet Skaro. On this planet are a bunch of blond-haired, white bread pacifists, and this obscure little band of creatures named the Daleks.

We’ll pick up on Skaro next week.

*and writer Terry Nation, responsible for two of my favorite stories from Season 1 as well as many of the innovations that transformed this pedestrian little children’s show from an afternoon’s diversion to a cultural icon.

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2 thoughts on “The Classic Doctor Who Viewing Project: Season 1, Part 1 (An Unearthly Child)

  1. I’m so glad to read your analysis, because I had never understood the affection others express for this story. The first doctor doesn’t resonate with me, and I don’t enjoy the early serials all that much. It’s an important event, but not something I particularly enjoy–and you’ve done a great job capturing the flaws. Thanks so much!

  2. This series is really no more or less than my feeble attempt to look at Doctor Who with fresh eyes in the same way you did with The Monkees in your awesome book Monkee Magic (See what i did there? 😉 ).

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